Robocop by José Padilha

Robocop by  José Padilha

Set in 2028 Detroit, Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) – a loving husband, father and good cop – is critically injured in the line of duty, the multinational conglomerate OmniCorp seizes this opportunity to make him into a half-man, half-machine police officer.

With its combination of B-movie kitsch, sci-fi action and satirical social commentary, Paul Verhoeven’s original Robocop was a product of its time. Having thoroughly enjoyed it as a child on VHS, I owned a Robocop action figure, played the Robocop video game on Gameboy and even faithfully watched the sequels without any sense that the stories started to deteriorate in quality. Initially the first film worked as a highly violent action film and it was only later as an adult that I caught on with the satirical bits.

Hearing about this upcoming Robocop remake, I wondered if those satirical elements would work again. Yes, technology today has now caught up with what was shown in the original film, but that doesn’t necessary mean there is anything substantial to be attacked satirically. I assumed it was going to be more focused on the action sci-fi elements.

But my prediction was wrong. The new Robocop gets right what I thought it would have fumbled, the social satire, and drops the ball exactly where I never would have expected, namely the Robocop story itself. The satire elements with Samuel L. Jackson doing a parody of Fox News, makes up for the most entertaining segments but it is the only condensed source of satire. The satire works and is surprisingly relevant, but it is not as naturally incorporated into its fictional world as the original. Every segment with Jackson’s TV host feels like a break from the main narrative.

Joel Kinnaman does a decent job with the material he is given, but the story is essentially not focused on Alex Murphy. The remake version of Murphy and he is not portrayed as a warm friendly guy like Peter Weller, or at least the story is not showing it. It is a long wait before Robocop officially becomes Robocop and does the Robocop thing, as we are shown the entire production process of his creation. It is here in the second act where the story starts to sag. It is also where the action scenes begin, which are decently designed and choreographed, but ultimately are dull because there is no gravitas behind them.

Abbie Cornish plays Murphy’s wife seriously, replacing Nancy Allen’s Officer Anne Lewis as Murphy’s anchor to his own humanity, is unfortunately wasted from having no character progression or payoff.

The R-rated violence was an essential element to the original Robocop, establishing great nasty villains and touched upon themes of dehumanization and human conscience versus the judgment of a machine. Whether the ultra violence is included in this telling is irrelevant. There are many things movies can get away with a PG-13 rating now than in the eighties. I do not need this remake to be ultra violent. What I want is the scenes to be emotionally gripping, and this did not achieve that.

The main debate between Gary Oldman’s kindhearted robotics scientist and Michael Keaton’s slimy Omnicorp CEO, representing the individual versus the corporation, is the heart of the film. And it is quite ironic actually. Even down to making Robocop black and riding a black motorcycle, visually reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (frankly, the original suit still looks cooler), Robocop plays like a film that has been workshopped by a committee of producers. Robocop, or as he referred to in the film, “the Tinman”, just needed more heart.

Saving Mr. Banks by John Lee Hancock

Saving Mr. Banks by John Lee Hancock

 

As a writer, it is my opinion that how authors view the film adaptation of their own work is irrelevant and inconsequential to the quality of the adaptation itself. For example, whether Stephen King appreciates Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining fundamentally does not make it a lesser film. This is the central question presented in John Lee Hancock’s Saving Mr. Banks.

The story recounts Author P.L. Travers (Mary Poppins), writer of Mary Poppins, reluctantly meeting with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), who seeks to adapt her book for the big screen. As they are collaborating on the film adaptation, Travers reflects on her childhood growing up in Australia with her father (Colin Farrell), revealing her own personal attachments to the Mary Poppins story.

Emma Thompson breathes a great inner life into P.L. Travers, humanizing a role that is greatly restrained and otherwise very unlikable. Tom Hanks, combining his star persona and natural ease, gives us a living and breathing Walt Disney. Hanks makes everything look so easy. Colin Farrell turns an affecting performance as Travers’ chronic alcoholic father Travers Goff, and also props to Annie Rose Buckley as the young P.L. Travers. The heart of the story lies in the flashback segments, as we see P.L. Travers’ past with his father in Australia and it shows that P.L. Travers essentially wrote Mary Poppins as wish fulfillment.

Director John Lee Hancock balances the material perfectly. Even though I fundamentally disagree with Travers’ persnickety demand of complete faithfulness, I empathize deeply with why she was so overprotective of her own material. It makes for much of the laughs as we watch the gloom Travers single-handedly killing all the child-like enthusiasm of the staff at Disney.

It is probably best to see Mary Poppins first to get a more wholesome experience, as seeing the numerous classic scenes and songs that Travers could have prevented from ever being created gives a whole other level of tension. Also, stay for the credits for a surprise easter egg.

Despite probably being overshadowed in terms of awards recognition, Saving Mr. Banks is a very enjoyable experience. Audience will find laughs and tears, as it is a well-made feel good movie.

12 Years A Slave by Steve McQueen

12 Years A Slave by Steve McQueen

 

Based on the memoirs of Solomon Northup, it recounts the story of Northup, a free black carpenter and musician living in upstate New York, who gets kidnapped and illegally sold as a slave to the south for twelve years.

Solomon Northup is the role of a lifetime and Chiwitel Ejiofor delivers it in full, leaving the viewer in moments of shock, fear and awe. Solomon’s inner conflict between resisting his new slave identity to the sad eventual acceptance is all communicated through Ejiofor’s face and body, as he is forbidden to speak. And it is in witness of terrible things, we see Solomon grasping tight onto his own values and dignity that makes his situation all the more endearing. It is impressive how we can see what Ejiofor is thinking in every moment. There is noteworthy long take where Solomon quietly contemplates his own fate, his eyes slowly look towards the camera and it struck me dead still. Even though Matthew McConaughey is still my pick for the Oscar this year, it’s going to be ultimately between McConaughey and Chiwitel Ejiofor.

Michael Fassbender’s Edwin Epps is one of the most despicable evil onscreen characters in recent memory and probably for the ages. Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson and Benedict Cumberbatch all give fine supporting performances. What dark nether place the Caucasian actors are going mentally to breathe life into playing slavers is unfathomable. It is quite a sight to behold that level of evil being performed.

As producer, Brad Pitt didactically shows up in a small part to say the entire point of the story. While good in the part, Pitt’s appearance seems for more political reasons than purely for story reasons. It is not big enough of a problem to say he is miscast, but some may find it hokey or jarring.

Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o is spectacular as Epp’s most prized slave Patsy, capable of picking five hundred pounds of cotton per day, but the achievement brings her more harm than relief. What happens to Patsy is even more heartbreaking than Solomon’s situation. Because of this, Nyong’o becomes the heart of the story in the latter half, as she represents the majority of slaves who were never free to begin with and never will be. Nyong’o is my pick for the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award.

The physical violence is hard to watch. However, the non-violent scenes offer an insight not prevalent in other slave films, answering Quentin Tarantino’s proposed question “Why don’t slaves just kill their masters and escape in the middle of the night?” from Django Unchained. Steve McQueen gets beneath of how slavery works psychologically and shows its emotional violence. The way the slaves are sold posed completely naked, shower in groups outdoors like animals, and dance and sing in the middle of the night to amuse their masters, the power of slavery is not the threat of the whip but the overwhelming sense of human degradation that weighs them to the eventual surrender of one’s humanity.

Needless to say, 12 Years A Slave is an intense and upsetting experience. The story is masterfully visualized by McQueen, showing the horror of slavery through how society deemed it normal and acceptable. The awards recognition it has gained is well deserved and has nothing to do with the fact that it is a film about slavery or playing to the white guilt in Oscar voters. The majority of audiences will probably only be able to stomach the experience once, as the gut-wrenching nature of it may not be friendly to watching it again. My suggestion: go see it once, but see it in full with your eyes wide open and soak it all in for what it is. It is a work of social and historical significance.

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All Is Lost by J. C. Chandor

All Is Lost by J. C. Chandor

 

All Is Lost involves a man (Robert Redford), whose name is never mentioned, is lost at sea. His ship is damaged and he goes through a series of obstacles trying to survive.

Following up on his debut Margin Call, director J.C. Chandor achieves a poetry and spirituality with barebones simplicity. The serene oceans are beautifully photographed and there is an impressive use of tranquility in its storytelling. Whether it’s an impending storm or a school of fish swimming by the ocean, Chandor crafts genuine moments of awe in the truest sense of man versus nature.

Robert Redford carries the entire movie on his shoulders, and it’s a testament to his onscreen charm and persona. With almost next to no dialogue, character backstory or another actor to play off of, the film’s visceral experience completely hinges on Robert Redford’s every facial expression, delivering joyful relief with a sigh or with a frown evoking disappointment. It is a natural and honest performance, as Redford never once preens for the camera but rather simply plays the truth of the situation.

Comparative to his competitors for the best leading actor award, Redford’s performance, while artful and impressive, is not Oscar worthy. It hits a deeper reflective note that is more difficult to quantify as the experience rewards as much as the viewer wants to invest in it.

Even in terms of Oscar politics, weighed against slavery, AIDS and degenerate stockbrokers, a man trying to survive in nature perversely seems opaque right now. Perhaps it’s just not where the social unconscious wants to be focused on. That might be too bad, but I wager the film will have longer shelf life than some of the films that are nominated right now. All things considered, All Is Lost fares like the underdog film of this year, even though there is nothing underdog about it.

 

Dallas Buyers Club by Jean-Marc Vallée

Dallas Buyers Club by Jean-Marc Vallée

 

In 1985, Ron Woodroff (Matthew McConaughey), an electrician and avid rodeo enthusiast with homophobic views, contracts the HIV virus and is given 30 days to live. His doctor Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), tells him about the testing of an anti-viral drug named AZT – a drug thought to prolong the life of AIDS patients. Discovering that AZT is actually harmful, he switches to other non-FDA approved drugs ddC and peptide T and partners with Rayon, a transgender woman (Jared Leto), and creates the Dallas Buyers Club, providing drugs to patients for a membership fee.

Making his resurgence this year with a return to dramatic roles, Matthew McConaughey dives into the Ron Woodroff character with an incomparable passion and commitment in years. The monologue McConaughey delivered in the finale of A Time to Kill sent chills down my spine years ago, and since then I have been waiting for years for him to quit doing romantic comedies and now the wait is finally over. Looking dangerously emaciated and painfully frail, McConaughey brings a complex humanity beneath the swindling, trashy, rude exterior in Ron Woodroff. Never in any circumstance would you ever want to hang out with Woodroff, but you feel sympathy for his plight and cheer him on as he rids of his homophobia and starts helping other people. This is McConaughey’s career best.

From the sparse arthouse way he chooses his parts and dividing time with his music career, Jared Leto has gone unnoticed under the radar, most people still only remember him from My So-Called Life. Rayon is the single most compelling onscreen character I have seen this year. Leto tackles the role with such love and human warmth, breathing charm and a sense of humor into Rayon, the role transcends from being a flamboyant woman trapped inside a man’s body but a human being who desires to be truly loved. As Rayon tells her estranged father in a scene, “It’s not a choice.” I would never presume to know the life experience of transgender people, but after seeing Leto’s deeply moving performance I feel much closer. Campaign or awards politics aside, both actors should win the Oscars, period.

Director Jean-Marc Vallée adopts a handheld cinéma vérité style that brings rawness and immediacy, taking its heavy subject matter head-on and naturally lets the characters tell the story. Even with the latter introduction of the FDA subplot, the story never becomes a political debate about whether the law truly meets human needs. Dallas Buyers Club is a fascinating, powerfully moving story and told passionately by its makers. It is one of the year’s best films.

American Hustle by David O. Russell

American Hustle by David. O Russell

American Hustle by David. O Russell

 

David O. Russell’s latest caper American Hustle is fundamentally more interested in its characters than doing anything with them.

The story is a fictionalized account of the FBI ABSCAM operation in the late 1970s. Irving Rosenfield (Christian Bale), a con man, falls in love with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), and the couple start running a con operation together. Everything seems perfect at first, but Irving refuses to leave his adopted son and wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who refuses to divorce him. When FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) catches Irving and Sydney in a loan scam, they are forced to help him make four arrests for their release.

What happens with the characters never matches the depth of their characterizations. As the narrative switches perspectives and cross-sections into the inner monologue of several characters, it keeps the viewer perpetually wondering who is the main character of the story. The con, or more specifically the plot, is cast to the side. The joy of watching the construction of the con is not present; O. Russell is not interested in those nuts and bolts.

Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are all very good and very free in their parts. Louis C.K. even has a funny supporting role as Bradley Cooper’s FBI superior who is frequently bullied. Despite of the nominations, the acting is not Oscar worthy. It just seems like it should be.

O. Russell directs like an acting coach running a class exercise, having the actors improvise scenes and go off script to no end. The scenes do feel raw and unrehearsed. At its best, energy is building and chaos seems to be imminent, like a lit fuse burning its way to the end of a dynamite stick that we cannot see. At its worst, it feels plodding and going over information we already know. The inverse effect is it makes the actors, as good as they are in their parts, look like they are playing dress up. So as much as it wants to be an anarchic character study, the final result is oddly shallow.

American Hustle does not quite live up to its awards hype. The truth is, it was overhyped from the beginning, and somehow David O. Russell has everybody believing he has made something good. Or somehow the people just want to believe he has made something good. Good for him, but I really doubt anybody will be talking about this film six months from now when the hype dies down.

The Wolf of Wall Street by Martin Scorsese

The Wolf of Wall Street by Martin Scorcese

 

Martin Scorsese’s latest is based on the memoirs of Jordan Belfort, a New York stockbroker and founder of Stratton Oakmont, a company which engaged in securities fraud and corruption on Wall Street during the nineties. 


First off, the performances are top-notch. Leonardo DiCaprio has managed to find new depths by playing a character that is even debatably worse than the racist plantation owner in Django Unchained. DiCaprio has done more than enough to win his Oscar, and winning for The Wolf of Wall Street is as good any of his other roles. My favorite DiCaprio performance is still Howard Hughes in The Aviator. Though my vote goes to McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club this year. Speaking of which, McConaughey has a great cameo as Jordan’s mentor, who gives Belfort the inspirational push. However, Jonah Hill is the standout as Belfort’s psychotic sidekick Donnie Azoff, delivering an even more impressive performance than in Moneyball.

At a 3-hour running time, the film is too long and it easily could have been shorter with less party scenes and throwing midgets into giant dartboards at the office. As a rise-and-fall story, it has too much ‘rise’ and not enough ‘fall’. I wanted the story to move on and inform us about the financial damage this all caused and all the lives it hurt in the process, but Scorsese does not seem interested in the forensics. Overall there are some very good party set pieces and funny scenes, but after a while, I was just numb.

The story is essentially told from the villain’s point of view. Extending this idea to the classic children’s storybook The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, which is told from the Big Bad Wolf’s perspective. The Wolf retells the Three Little Pigs story and asks the reader to consider his side of the story. The Wolf was simply trying to bake a cake for his grandmother’s birthday while nursing a bad cold, and things got out of hand. Therein lies my criticism: there is nothing redeemable from the Jordan Belfort character in The Wolf of Wall Street. Or at the very least, the filmmakers do not seem interested in showing anything beyond the surface. 

The breaking-the-4th-wall story device of having the villain narrate his story to the audience is raunchy and creative, but Scorsese totally forgets that it is supposed to be ironical. The premise of the black comedy is that we’re supposed to laugh at how vile and putrid these people are. But by the nth orgy scene, the characters are matted into two dimensions and we never get beneath the surface. The morality play tips over to the other side and it mistakenly justifies itself. Just because this a tale about self-indulgent shallow people doesn’t mean we have to tell their story in a self-indulgent shallow fashion.

The bad taste left in my mouth at the end is not the film’s self-indulgence, but out of worry that The Wolf of Wall Street is so unclear about its cautionary message, that there are certain viewers that will admire this lifestyle and become inspired to become a stock broker. For the rest of that find the Belfort character repugnant will feel empty wondering what justified the three-hour running time.

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Tom Yum Goong 2 by Prachya Pinkaew

Tom Yum Goong by Prachya Pinkaew

 

Tom Yum Goong 2 marks Tony Jaa’s return since his announced retirement after the failed Ong Bak 3 and living life as a Buddhist monk. The sequel to 2005’s Tom Yum Goong has Kham’s elephant Khon is kidnapped once again by an evil organization that plans to blackmail Kham into assassinating the President of Katana to kickstart a coup. As flimsy as that plot sounds, it is the least of its problems.

By incorporating special effects and stereoscopic 3D into the film’s action scenes, Pinkaew forgets its major visual effect, namely Tony Jaa himself. The action is haphazardly cut with an embarrassingly huge amount of spatial jumps and tight close-ups that do not match, as if there was not enough usable footage. Many times the viewer enters the action after the first hit has been made. Apparently there were five editors on the project, what happened?

Tony Jaa is at not in his peak physical form, and the film seems to be hiding it from the audience. He is not as fast or hard-hitting as he once was. Jaa’s choreography is restrained, for most of the group fights he just seems to be dispatching people aside as quickly as possible. And the whole time, I was waiting for Jaa to show off. Everytime Ja whips out the elephant boxing style, a style that he and fight choreographer Panna invented for the previous film, are some of the film’s most exciting moments. Sadly, there is very little of it.

Jeeja Yanin from Chocolate is unfortunately sidelined, she occasionally shows up to help Tony Jaa and vice versa, but otherwise there is little interaction between them. Clumsy cop comic sidekick Petchtai Wongkamlao gets some nice lines in but as seen in the first Ong Bak his strengths seem to lie in physical comedy, which he does not get to do here. The stunning Rhatha Phongam from Only God Forgives also makes a decent femme fatale, but the overabundance of supporting characters and a political assassination plot weighs everything down as the film takes on more than it can handle. Why does it have to be so complicated? Man loses elephant. Man goes and retrieves it, end of story!

RZA, together with his film The Man with the Iron Fist and self-proclaimed love of martial arts films, is forging a reputation to being a kung fu film staple. His casting as the villain is cashing in on that particular geek sheik. Atrocious acting aside, watching RZA sharing an onscreen fight with Tony Jaa had me rolling my eyes. RZA movie fights just fine, but does anyone buy him gaining the upper hand on Ja?

Speaking of which, Marresse Crump, who plays the lead henchman, is a great onscreen fighter who can go toe-to-toe with Tony Jaa. The first fight between Crump and Jaa had me pumped, and their last fight on a train track was the type of creative set piece I was expecting to see. Both fighters are capable of more complicated choreography but the choreographers held back with their fight. The fights always seem to be over before the audience can properly enjoy them. The first Tom Yum Goong had a video game boss level-like approach with its action sequences that kept topping each other in terms of scale and insanity, which was made it entertaining and hilarious. There is nothing to that equivalent here.

The best Prachya Pinkaew film is still Chocolate, as it had a neat creative angle and managed to incorporate its action in telling an emotional story coherently. Tom Yum Goong 2 just seems oddly distracted and unconfident about what it wants to be.